Thursday, July 18, 2024

Sarah Boyer, the historian behind “Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves” (via the author)

Over the course of almost 20 years, Sarah Boyer worked as the oral historian at the Cambridge Historical Commission, conducting interviews with community members and publishing books on North Cambridge, Central Square, East Cambridge, The Port and World War II in Cambridge. Her interest in oral history originated with the North Cambridge project, for which she interviewed 60 residents of the neighborhood, including Tip O’Neill, a North Cantabrigian who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987. Published in 1997, “In Our Own Words: Stories of North Cambridge” was her first book, and she was subsequently hired by the Cambridge Historical Commission. When she retired in 2015, she started working on a project that became “Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves: Lesbian Stories from the Boston Daughters of Bilitis, 1969-1999.”

Founded in San Francisco in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the country. It was initially conceived as a social club for San Francisco lesbians with the aim of providing an alternative to the lesbian bars that were subject to raids and harassment by the police and the public. It ultimately grew to have chapters nationwide, the last of which dissolved in the late 1990s. “Coming Out, Becoming Ourselves” includes 21 interviews with members of the Boston-Cambridge chapter, chronicling their struggles and the way they joined together to overcome the prejudices of the time. We interviewed Boyer on Monday; her words have been edited for length and clarity.


Why did the founding members choose that name, and what were their goals with the organization initially? 

The name came from Bilitis, a mythical female figure who was supposedly a lover of Sappho, the mythical lesbian on the Greek island of Lesbos. There was a French man named Pierre Louys who had written a book of poetry about same-sex love called “The Songs of Bilitis,” and it became popular among lesbians. The Daughters of Bilitis came about In San Francisco in 1955, when four lesbian couples got together to form a sort of community group. One of them came up with the name the Daughters of Bilitis, suggesting that they could always call themselves a Greek poetry club if things went south, because even in San Francisco lesbians were out not in 1955. They suffered from society’s homophobia and discrimination; they could lose their jobs, houses, families, friends and, in some cases, their lives. The idea behind the Daughters of Bilitis was that it would be a social club, a place where lesbians could meet other lesbians without having to go to the gay bars. Ultimately it became more political, as they wanted to educate the public about homosexuality and fight for gay rights. Eventually, the organization went on to include more than 25 chapters in the United States, including the Boston-Cambridge chapter, which formed in 1969.

How did the Boston-Cambridge chapter start, and what was the group like?

In 1969, a woman who went by the pseudonym Jan Chase was reading The Ladder, which was the journal that the San Francisco Daughters of Bilitis published, with articles, fiction, poetry, book reviews and things like that. She wanted to start a Daughters of Bilitis chapter in Boston, so she got together with the production assistant of The Ladder, and they went to New York to talk with the vice president of the New York chapter. They happened to go the same week as the beginning of the Stonewall Uprising, which I think really helped galvanize them. When they came back, they formed the group – it was very slow initially, but eventually it started to grow and gain traction.

It really picked up in 1973 with this couple Lois and Sheri. They actually had been to a meeting right in the beginning, but Lois didn’t like it at first; she thought they were a bunch of kooks, that’s what she said. So they went home and they didn’t get involved at all until a year later, when they decided to give it another chance. They went to a dance at the Arlington Street Church, which was the meeting place for the Daughters of Bilitis, and they ended up joining. They realized they’d made a mistake and they wanted to get involved in the organization. In 1973, Sheri ran for president. The woman who ran against her wanted to turn the Daughters of Bilitis into a very strong political organization, and Lois and Sheri felt firmly that it would be better to have an organization that supported lesbians, that could serve as a kind of home for them and give them a safe place to meet, because there were so many lesbians who were still afraid to come out.

Sheri won the election, but after a year she tired of being president, so she asked Lois if she would run. Lois was elected president in 1974 and was president for the next 20 years, so their mission of wanting it to be a community space really became the thrust of the organization. The heart of the organization was supporting lesbians in a safe place, and ultimately they saw that lesbians from different groups needed different kinds of support, so they started these discussion groups – lesbians over 35, lesbians under 35, lesbians with children, single lesbians, they even had a trans group at one point. These were led by people who had had training in leading discussions and knowing what to do if there were any problems within the groups, and these went on for as long as the Daughters of Bilitis Boston-Cambridge chapter existed, which was about 30 years. The members also worked on some political action, like going up to the State House and talking to legislators about gay discrimination in jobs and other public accommodations. They worked closely with Barney Frank, who was a state representative and then was a member of the House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013. He was gay, but he actually wasn’t even out himself until he ended up working on gay rights bills with the Daughters of Bilitis. So they really did a lot.

How did you find out about the Daughters of Bilitis in Boston, and how did you start researching it?

When I retired in 2015 from the Cambridge Historical Commission, I still wanted to do more oral history work. I was involved in an older lesbian brunch that took place once a month in Roslindale, and one day at a brunch, I ended up talking to Lois Johnson, the former president. She had found out that I had done all this oral history work, and she approached me about helping her interview lesbians who had been members. I was very eager to help her with the project because even though I had retired, I wanted to continue to do this kind of work any way I could.

What interested you about these members’ stories? 

I have always been interested in finding out about people who are not normally written up in books, who are not well-known but should be. And I found in North Cambridge, at the beginning of my career, that the ordinary folks in the neighborhood gave me extraordinary stories of how they went through struggles in their lives, how they found joy in their lives and how they overcame obstacles to become successful. I thought it might be the same with the Daughters of Bilitis, and I was interested in finding out who they were and how they had gotten here, because I grew up that way too. I found really interesting stories, like Ann Maguire, who became a very well-known LGBTQ+ advocate and made a ton of progress for the community, and I wanted to share those stories.

Did you learn anything from doing these interviews and writing this book that you think remains particularly relevant today?

I definitely feel that way. One of the things that I learned from doing this project was that there were many lesbian and gay organizations that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, but many of them ended fairly quickly because of in-fighting: People couldn’t agree on policies, they couldn’t find consensus, they had various viewpoints. I think the Daughters of Bilitis succeeded as a group and stuck around for 30 years because, even though they did work on gay rights bills and they almost always went to the gay pride parades, its main objective was providing lesbians with a place where they could find community, accept themselves and feel supported.

We still need that kind of community. We still have so much polarization and divisiveness between different groups. There are these extremists who talk about how awful different groups of people are, but what they’re really saying is that they’re afraid – they’re afraid of the unknown. The lesson I see here, and what I’m taking forward, is that when people can sit down and just talk together as people, no matter their similarities or differences, they can start to lose the fear of the unknown, because that person becomes more real. In many ways, we all want the same things, and if you can see the individual instead of the enemy, we will be able to move forward. Maybe that’s a little idealistic, but I do believe breaking through that fear starts with just sitting down with people. Breaking down fear breaks down stereotypes, and you begin to see people for who they are. I think that was very important then, and it remains very important today.